Friday, 28 August 2020

Living in Interesting Times

You will almost definitely have been reminded at some point over the last months and years of the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." If you are anything like me you will probably have responded with a sadly bewildered shake of the head, accompanied perhaps by some comment about Trump, Brexit or Covid-19. "Interesting times. You're telling me," you may have said. You won't have had to ask to have the reference explained, because it is such a well-established truism, with the sort of paradoxical incisiveness that gives saying like this such force.

Except there's a problem: there is no real evidence of any such Chinese curse ever having existed.

So why do we like to think that one did? Well, until very recently there was a sector of society who believed at a pretty instinctual level that too-rapid change of any sort was fundamentally worrisome - that the best thing the world could do was to keep pretty much everything as is, except for improving the availability of avocados and consumer electronics. This of course was conservatism, and back then it aligned pretty closely with Conservatism. Agitating for change was what socialists and animal rights activists did, and framing your resistance to change as a piece of ancient Oriental wisdom gave it a sort of solemn legitimacy.

And then, suddenly, in the US and the UK at least, everything went topsy-turvy. Who are the angry ones now, taking up arms and invoking the language of war, their faces red with fury? It is the brexiteers and the Trumpians who talk of American carnage and fighting them on the beaches, whilst the anti-racists and the climate activists and the liberals engage in passive resistance and "take the knee."

So how come? Well, my theory is actually an optimistic one. For decades, the movement of societies across the developed world has been away from patriarchy, white supremacy and parochial nationalism. The process has hardly been smooth or consistent, but just look back fifty years to see how far we have come. I am still shocked watching clips from seventies TV shows to remember how little I questioned the profoundly racist, sexist and xenophobic tone of many of them. But back then, so much existed to support the innate sense of privilege of the white, hetero, English-speaking male and it must have seemed that that was the way it was always going to be. Conservatism and a profound desire not to rock the boat made sense for white, English-speaking males, particularly those with limited other sources of privilege (such as wealth, education or elevated social class). And then, when change did begin happening (women's lib, gay rights, increased immigration, more awareness of other counties, languages and cultures) conservatism was a vital protection against the forces of anarchy.

And then change began reaching a tipping point. The innate privilege that had seemed so permanent began to weaken. The voices of women, people of colour, gay people, foreigners (for God's sake!) began to be heard. Still nowhere as much as they deserved to be heard, but still far too much for the fragile egos of the Donald Trumps, Nigel Farages, Steve Bannons and Boris Johnsons of this world, and certainly far, far too much for their otherwise completely unprivileged, but still White, male and English speaking supporters.

So, suddenly, resisting change was no longer enough. The change had happened, and now it had to be undone, and that wasn't going to happen without a fight. Now it was a question of recapturing rather than just retaining that innate privilege. And so Conservatism (or Republicanism in the US) abandoned the notion of conservatism and became activist. The had to take back control, make america great again, build the wall, send the asylum seekers back. And there was an obvious place to look for the language and imagery they needed - the Second World War. Pretty much the epitome of the 'interesting times' that that mythical Chinese curse evoked, but a time when (at least in the hazy, one-generation-removed 'memory' of the trumpy/brexiteers) the innate privilege of the white hetero English-speaking male was at its height.

So, suddenly, 'interesting times' is what the Trumpians and the Brexiteers seem to want - chaos, division, ripping up of well-established customs and protections and a leap into the economic unknown of twenty-first century isolationism. And why do they want it? Because they know they've lost, and this is their last, desperate roll of the dice.

The trouble is, ancient Chinese curse or not, these interesting times are going to be pretty bloody difficult for everybody.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

A strange sort of nationalism

So back in the days of good old-fashioned xenophobia, nationalism was when you believed your country to be superior to any other country and hung your nation's flag over your balcony to prove it. Other countries were sly, untrustworthy, useless or dangerous. THEIR judges were corrupt and/or stupid, THEIR politicians on the take and/or useless and THEIR whole system of government and public service overpriced, weird, ineffective and convoluted.

Somewhere along the line though, that all changed, though it took 2016 (the year of Trump and Brexit) to make that fact clear.

You see, what the brexiteers had in common with Trump was their populist nationalism, to the extent that the two campaigns seem to have come to define nationalism for the 21st Century. And the thing is, it is actually a very weird sort of nationalism indeed when you come to think about it, because to 21st Century nationalists it's not THEIR judges, politicians and public services that are shit, it's OURS!

Take the brexiteers. British Nationalists they may be, but look at the range of things they are willing to turn against: British judges (aka Enemies of the People); the British civil service (foot-dragging Remoaners, every one); British ambassadors ("emotionally needy", according to Theresa Villiers, and expressing sour grapes, according to IDS); the British Parliament (not to be trusted with any sort of decision on Brexit) and of course the Act of Union with Scotland, hence the United Kingdom itself.

Pretty much the full house, you might think, but still trumped by Trump, who has repeatedly described the entire system of government in the US as a swamp in need of draining. But that's not the weirdest thing. The xenophobic arch-nationalist has then turned on his own country's intelligence services whilst praising the leader of a foreign power who has been exposed as engaging in cyber-warfare against the US. You really couldn't make it up.

So it seems that 21st Century nationalism goes hand in hand with full throated attacks on pretty much every institution of that same nation. So what exactly is it that nationalists these days support? Even the flag is problematic, surely. Even more in the US than in the UK, the national flag is an inseparable symbol of the national institutions that Trump's nationalists attack with such gusto. The stars and stripes flutters constantly over the swamp they chant about (over every State building in the land, in fact), and if Russia is suddenly more to be trusted than the US's own intelligence agencies, then which flag should they be rallying behind anyway?

You see it seems that 21st Century populist nationalism is a very direct and emotional concept that bypasses systems of government and national institutions, so that the 'nation' becomes whatever any individual nationalist deems it to be. It's generally a pretty vague concept, but can be easily conjured by well-chosen three-word slogans, apparently: "take back control", "build the wall", "lock her up", "brexit means brexit" and "drain the swamp." Not that specific maybe, but they clearly work, and certainly a hell of lot simpler than the average National Anthem.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Occam's chainsaw

I loathe Michael Gove, but I have to say I am often grateful to him for clarifying what it is I do and don't believe. It isn't quite as simple as saying that 'Gove says it therefore it is wrong' (though that is an entirely reasonable starting point), it is more a question of the faux-reasonable and pseudo-intellectual style in which he pontificates provoking a stronger than usual reaction in me.

Take his recent performance as chair of the new commons 'Brexit' committee in which he "pressed experts on how the UK could achieve a “quickie divorce” with the EU regardless of the economic consequences, as he raised concerns that civil servants were over-complicating the process." Clearly proud of his erudition he invoked the image of Occam's razor as the tool to be used in this sort of debate. And something about the posiness of that reference really got me thinking.

Occam's razor (named after the English Franciscan friar of that name) is the scientific principle that simpler hypotheses are preferable to more complex ones, and that therefore scientists should seek to reduce rather than increase complexity in their hypotheses. Michael Gove, clearly delighted by this idea, sought to apply it to the Brexit process, and why not? Throughout the referendum campaign he and his colleagues sought again and again to reduce the complexity of the arguments involved until they essentially came down to one sentence: "Take back control." Control over what was never clearly defined, and neither were the mechanisms by which this amorphous control was to be regained, nor the other consequences that might ensue. Occam's razor, see! Everything else could be left as vague and unspecified assertions about immigration, £350 million a week, new trading opportunities, return to pounds and ounces... anything you want really.

The thing is, of course, that that is not remotely how William of Occam intended his philosophical razor to be used. The point for him was that simpler hypotheses are better because they are MORE EASILY TESTABLE. Gove and his cronies have used their version of the razor to achieve the exact opposite. By airily dismissing any discussion of any of the intrinsic complexities of the questions in hand they have come up with sweeping generalisations that almost by definition can never be tested. When will we know that, as a country, we have 'taken back control?' The only way literally to achieve that would be to remove ourselves from any and all trans-national agreements (the UN, NATO, the International Criminal Court, the Commonwealth...), banish any and all multi-national companies from the UK and replace parliament with a system of rolling plebiscites, with everything from tax to street-lighting decided by referendum.

Is that what the Brexiteers were arguing for? Who knows. Maybe some were, but there is no way of knowing, and that's the point. Once a political aim becomes so simplistic and general that it is completely untestable then you can read into it whatever you want.

And it isn't just in the Brexit debate that this distorted Occam's razor has been weilded. Trump' campaign was all about simplistic, generalised and utterly untestable statements like "Drain the swamp" or "Make America great again." Even the apparently testable ones like "Build the wall" and "Lock her up" were really there as rallying cries rather than statements of intended policy, as Trump's rowing-back since the election has made clear.

And there is a wider seam of this sort of stuff that goes way beyond election politics. I happened to come across a Facebook argument between my brother (a mathematician and scientist) and various climate change deniers. My brother's posts were long (sometimes overlong, to be fair), thorough, nuanced and well researched. What he was often met with was memes. I happened across the same phenomenon in the bizarre world of the flat-earthers and wrote about it here.

But what Michael Gove, with his faux-philosophical intervention on the subject, prompted me to realise was that occam's razor remains a very useful image in these circumstances. A razor is a tool one uses with circumspect precision to remove hairy irrelevances to reveal the living essence of the person (or issue). Once a razor has been applied properly (and carefully) one can see clearly who or what one is dealing with, and so come to sensible and robust conclusion about them. What Gove, Farage, Trump, the flat-earthers and their like are wielding is what I would like to call occam's chainsaw. By recklessly destroying all complexity, relevant or irrelevant, from an issue and reducing it to puddle of minced flesh suitable to be formed into a meme they remove any possibility of any further debate. How are you supposed to argue with "take back control" or "make America great again"?

However the converse of this is also clear. Just as one should never, under any circumstances, use a chainsaw to shave with, so one should immediately reject any response to a complex issue which reduces it to a meme.

Or, to express that as a meme:

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

So, are Trump and Brexit the internet's fault then?

It goes without saying that there has been a troubling sea-change in the way politics is done (in the UK and the US anyway) over the last few months. The question is, why? Of course, populist demagoguery and the appeal to the lowest common denominator of mysogyny and racial and religious prejudice are hardly new, and neither is the phenomenon of post-truth politics . It's just that in the past it has taken conditions like the collapse of the Weimar Republic to bring them to the fore. And though there has been an economic downturn since the global financial crash, people aren't yet having to take a barrowload of banknotes to the shops to buy a pound of potatoes.

So why have the electorate turned their faces so vehemently against 'experts' and 'the establishment' that they are prepared to support people who are saying things that would not long ago have been unthinkable? And I don't just mean Trump's offensiveness towards women, the disabled, muslims and even PoWs, Johnson's racial slur on the President of the USA or Farage's Breaking Point poster. There is their utter disregard for normal standards of truth and honesty and their willingness to threaten political violence if they don't get their way (both Farage and Trump have explicitly warned of, and even encouraged, people taking to the streets if their agenda is frustrated). There is their willingness to talk in ludicrously broad terms of what they are going to achieve without the slightest attempt at formulating policies for doing so. Their willingness to whip their electorate up with promises they have absolutely no intention of delivering on.

Not so long ago these people (Trump, Farage, Johnson, Gove and others) would have become political pariahs for the way they have behaved - banished to the wastebin of political history like Nick Griffin, Jean-Marie le Pen or Ross Perot (all of whom would probably in 2016 be seen as rather conservative with a small c). So what has changed?

Is it ludicrous to suggest that the growth of the internet and social media holds part of the explanation? You see it used to be that the general electorate had an extremely unequal relationship with the political establishment. Political leaders were part of a secret world to which we, the electorate, had no real access and whose denizens knew far better than we did what was wrong with the world and how to put it right. You could protest of course, and many did, but you would never really know what went on in the corridors of power and never fully grasp the hugely complex levers of power that these people wielded.

The internet has changed all that. There is wikileaks of course, exposing the soiled underwear of that political establishment for all to see. But there's also Twitter and the like. Time was that political leaders pontificated on the BBC news and all you could do was shout at the television. Now political leaders have twitter accounts and your tweets are allowed exactly the same number of characters as theirs. It's like the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz when the curtain gets pulled back to reveal the funny little man operating the machinery.

But the other thing that twitter does is allow (encourage even) strident and simplistic comments to be instantly disseminated with no real challenge. Time was, if a politician wanted to say any of the things Trump has put in his tweets they would have to do it either on TV or in parliament, and there they would be subject to more or less effective questioning and made to explain or justify their remarks. On twitter, that simply doesn't happen in the same way. Social media operates as a series of 'echo chambers' within which people generally hear repeated and amplified messages with which they are already inclined to agree. And if there is any voice of dissent it can quickly descend into a 'he said, she said' twitter storm that really doesn't hold anyone to account.

And it seems to me that this provides fertile ground for the dissemination of the sort of populist, demagogic politics we see from Trump and the Brexiteers (now there's a name for an apocalyptic Death Metal band...). And once a movement like that starts in social media world it can be very hard both to gauge accurately and to stop. The normal standards of decent political discourse simply don't apply in social media echo chambers, and anyone interjecting with rational, fact-based or expert counter-arguments can easily be dismissed (and/or personally attacked) as establishment stooges or even 'enemies of the people.' And the left-wing liberals would never set foot in these sort of social media echo chambers anyway (they have their own) so such a movement can grow virtually unchecked.

So what can be done?

I have always felt that, in the long term at least, an increase in the ability of people to communicate directly with each other must be a good thing. However recent events have shown beyond doubt that removing too rapidly the governing mechanism of respect for political establishments has been extremely dangerous. And now the only thing to do is somehow offer and disseminate an alternative discourse with which at least some of the people currently caught up in demagogic populism can engage. We won't do it by lecturing either (which sort of rules me out!) The liberal left needs to develop memes and (non-sarky) tweets and snappy one-liners about the empowerment of ordinary citizens and the benefits of cultural cross-pollination and the enormous benefits that liberal democracy has brought.

We need clever people and young people and people whose minds haven't atrophied or solidified around crass simplifications about immigration and scroungers. Thankfully that's just what we've got. But they need not to disappear into their own comfortably outraged echo chambers but get out there and start repairing the damage.

Good luck with that.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Spare a thought for the Leave voters

There has been a lot of commentary in my particular social media echo chamber since Thursday on the topic of the despair felt by Remain voters since Thursday's EU referendum. However it is worth considering also how cheated and baffled many of those who voted Leave will be feeling over the next few weeks.

For the moment, leave aside the vague and aspirational promises made by the Brexiteers during the campaign (that the UK will proper as never before once freed from the shackles of Europe). Admittedly the signs are not looking good, but three days in it is far too early to say that these were false promises. Instead, focus on the definitive 'factual' commitments given to voters prior to the vote.

If the country voted Leave, we were told, then the following would certainly occur:

1) The UK would 'take back control' by acting immediately to initiate the process of separation from the EU.
2) £350 million pounds a week, freed up from EU budget contributions, would be spent on the NHS (and other like causes).
3) Immigration would be 'controlled'. The clear implication was that this meant bringing net migration figures down to the current government's 'tens of thousands' target.

So now that the country has voted leave, what now? Already it has been made clear that none of these commitments will be met.

1) Far from the UK (meaning, presumably its PM) initiating the process of separation immediately this will not even begin for at least 3 months, and then will be in the gift of the UK's first unelected prime minister since Gordon Brown.
2) This commitment was a 'mistake', as made clear by Farage withing hours of the announcement of the result.
3) 'Control' of immigration will not mean reduction, according to both Boris Johnson and, more explicitly, Daniel Hannan.

Numbers 2) and 3) are where most anger is being generated, but actually 1) is a very significant issue. Whatever you do or don't think about its merits, the core Leave case was pretty straighforward: leave the EU and we regain control. Yet Cameron's refusal to invoke article 50 means that, for at least the next three months, the UK will have surrendered control entirely over its future, in a period of unprecedented global uncertainty.

We will still be in the EU of course and still subject to all of its 'control' but will have no power or influence within it whatever. Cameron will be a totally 'lame duck' leader and the other countries very motivated to rally together. It is not hard to imagine the mood in next week's Council of Ministers' meeting.

So far from gaining control, the UK has now put itself in a position where it has sacrificed any real influence in the EU whilst not even beginning the process of leaving it until at least October. And what must Leave voters be feeling about that? They were promised a brave new world of renewed power, sovereignty and authority and will get the opposite. They were promised better funding for public services and reduced immigration and will see no sign of either. And that is presuming that the economy doesn't tank!

If I were a Leave voter I would be bloody furious already. But do not make the mistake of thinking that this is an optimistic post. In the history of European democracies it has not generally gone well when a populace has realised that they have been cheated and lied to by their political leaders, when their livelihoods and the country's prosperity have collapsed and when hatred has been whipped up against the immigrants in their midst.

Friday, 24 June 2016


So Britain has voted by 52% to 48% for a course of action that experts lined up to tell them was unwise, while its proposers responded that "people have had enough of experts."


Two things seem clear enough: a high proportion of leave voters were c2de (the lower socio-economic classes) and the issue with most traction in the leave campaign was immigration. In other words, a lot (though not all) of the leave voters were people whose lives are shit and who blame immigration for that fact.

If we accept this interpretation (which seems a fairly widespread one) then we still have to ask ourselves why the 'disenfranchised working class' put the blame for their ills on immigration and immigrants rather than elsewhere. Was it racism, a rational response to the destruction of their security, or somewhere in between?

The lives of the poor, the low-waged and the otherwise disadvantaged in this country are pretty shit these days and showing no prospect of getting better any time soon. Theirs is a world of zero-hours contracts, of overpriced and/or unavailable housing, of unobtainable benefits, of vanishing pensions and of bewildering social change. So who is to blame?

Most people, I reckon, would put it down to four groups: the bankers who gambled away our prosperity and financial security; the Tories/Lib Dems whose punitive austerity made the poor pay the price; the corporations that took advantage of the financially vulnerable to rob them further through zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships; and the Eastern European immigrants who saw even that sort of pitiful employment as superior to what they had at home and so took (at least some of) the jobs on offer.

Of that list, it seems pretty clear from all the analysis that I have seen that the group whose impact was the least damaging was actually the last. So why is it that they have emerged as the chief scapegoats?

Partly I believe this is an issue of power imbalance. The poor and poorly-employed may recognise that a lot of their problems are down to the banks, the government and the big corporations, but what the hell are they supposed to do about that? The banks have all of their money, which sort of gives them the upper hand, and without the big corporations there would be no jobs at all. As for government, not only they are aloof and powerful, but what option have you got anyway in terms of getting rid of them? The parties are all as bad as each other and/or incapable of running a piss-up in a brewery.

Immigration and immigrants though are a different manner. Like Bob Ewell turning on Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird it is far easier for the disadvantaged in society to look down on swarthy Bulgarians in pleather jackets queuing for casual labour outside Wickes than it is to join Occupy and picket major financial institutions. And in the EU referendum the 'disenfranchised' were suddenly given a large stick to lash out at at least one of those four factors that they considered to have ruined (or at least threatened) their lives. And in retrospect, are we surprised that they used it?

The leave vote was largely fuelled by anger, I am in little doubt of that. And when you are angry and armed with a big stick it doesn't really matter much whether the person within range is your real enemy or not. It still feels good to hit him.

And of course it wasn't just immigration and immigrants that the leave voters hit out at, it was the EU itself, and this is where the other explanation comes in too. Because it seems to me that what made both immigration and the EU into appropriate targets was what they have in common, and what sets them apart from the other major factors in the working poor's problems: they are both clearly foreign. Immigrants are visibly and audibly foreign, particularly in communities with no historical tradition of immigration, and the major problem with the EU is that it is political leaders and civil servants from other countries, like Germany, Belgium or France, that can determine our future, and they are by definition foreign.

It is easy to see the desire to lash out at that which is foreign as synonymous with racism and therefore anti-social and deviant, yet in some ways the impulse is the opposite of anti-social. To define a group as 'them' you have to first define an 'us', and that is increasingly difficult these days. In fact of course, the typical member of the working poor has almost nothing in common with the financial futures traders in the city or the ex-Etonian trust-fund kids in cabinet, but it doesn't FEEL like that when you can tell yourself that what you are doing is fighting to get your country back. People want and need to have some sort of sense of an 'us', and that certainly is the language one is hearing from the triumphant Leavers today. "This is our independence day," they say. "Now Britain can be great again." There'll be street parties soon.

The point is that, to many, both the immigrants who they fear are about to 'flood' into their towns and the 'Brussels bureaucracy' with its mythical banana obsession are unmistakable more foreign than the bankers, the government, or even the multi-national corporations. Particularly to the generations and populations that grew up in a largely mono-ethnic community and have never lived in another country.

And that is the other interesting thing about the leave voters. There was a strong direct relationship between average age and likelihood of voting Leave. 18-24s seem to have voted overwhelmingly to remain. Could it be that the young, who have had so much more exposure to ideas and people their parents and grandparents see as 'foreign' do not make the divisions in the same way? Some of the young certainly do seem to regard the bankers and the big corporations as 'the other' just as strongly as their elders see immigrants and the EU.

So is there hope for us all after this?

Of course there is. If Brexit leads to the diminution in the power and influence of Britain in the world that many commentators seem to expect then maybe that's not a bad thing. And if our young people start seeing more clearly who the authors of their misfortune are then that certainly isn't.

The only problem is that from here on in it is pretty clear that one of the major authors of the future misfortunes of the young is the generation who voted to take away their EU citizenship from them. My generation.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

At breaking point? Yes Nigel, maybe we are.

On the day Jo Cox was murdered, Nigel Farage unveiled a poster so vile that even the Daily Mail condemned it. He didn't intend the coincidence of course, but it was striking nonetheless, and what the reaction to it suggested to me is that maybe the country is at breaking point with the facile, little-england nationalism of UKIP and the Brexiters more widely.

The poster depicts hundreds of Syrian refugees queuing at the Slovenian border, with the words "Breaking Point" in red over. What it suggests is two things: first that Europe is at breaking point from the numbers displaced by the Syrian conflict and second that Britain should therefore break away. In other words that when Europe is faced with the biggest existential crisis since World War 2, we should Put Britain First and leave them to it. That the poster echoes Nazi propaganda just strengthens the parallel. And the fact that the upcoming Chilcott report will almost certainly show the link between the ill-advised Anglo-American adventure in Iraq and the current crisis adds just another layer of irony.

Of course in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland the government and the British people didn't Put Britain First in that narrow and selfish way and maybe it is that spirit of cussed defiance combined with compassionate care for the underdog that we need to combat the Brexiters. I have been heartened by a number of Facebook posts today and yesterday saying "I want my country back" and meaning by that the inclusive, forward-looking spirit of the 2012 Olympics.

What Jo Cox represented was what I like to believe is at the heart of the British psyche. Alongside her passionate commitment to her heritage and place of birth she held fast to the desire to stand up for the underdog, specifically for the very Syrian refugees that that poster seeks to demonise. And she was killed by someone shouting "Britain First," or "Put Britain First." Her killer may not have seen Nigel Farage's poster, but the the echo is uncanny.

Jo Cox wanted the sort of Britain back that those Facebook posters are reminding us of: in fact maybe she believed that it had never left. Let's hope she was right. I shall end with the best tribute I can find to her: her own words on the Syrian refugee crisis. Because I want her to have the last word, not Nigel Farage.

"We all know that the vast majority of the terrified, friendless and profoundly vulnerable child refugees scattered across Europe tonight came from Syria.

We also know that as that conflict enters its sixth barbaric year that desperate Syrian families are being forced to make an impossible decision: stay and face starvation, rape, persecution and death or make a perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.

And who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing. The reality in which children are being killed on their way to school, where children as young as seven are being forcibly recruited to the front line and where one in three Syrian children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war.

These children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness and I know I personally would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hell-hole."